January 12, 2017

Imagining History

by Tom Ferris, Archival Photographer

The Montana Historical Society photograph archives is home to approximately 500,000 photographs, in print and negative form. A large portion of the collection can be identified by subject, photographer, place, and date - and quite a bit of it by only one or two of those identifiers. I’d like to share with you a photograph that falls into that second category and has always led me to imagine what the unknown details are. We know the photograph was made by Evelyn Cameron, in the Fallon/Terry, Montana area, and probably in 1912. The questions of who and why remain a mystery. Why a photograph was made can be one of the most important aspects of understanding an image.

PAc # 90-87 G046-001 [Perhaps Norman Wold  Circa 1912]
Photographer: Evelyn Cameron

As an archival photographer here at MHS, I have been lucky enough to work with the Evelyn Cameron collection over the course of the last twenty years. This is my favorite photo collection being housed and preserved here, and we recently digitized about 650 of Cameron’s glass plate and nitrate negatives and uploaded the images to the Montana Memory Project. You can see them here.

One of the benefits of scanning film, (in this case a 3”x5” glass plate negative) at a high resolution is that we get to see details in the image which had gone unnoticed in print form. This is especially true if enlarged prints had not been made. While working on this image, (which could be of Norman Wold) I enlarged it on the screen to check for sharpness and quality and was surprised to find an earring in the mans’ left ear. This is a very uncommon accessory for white men of European descent at this time in western history, and it made me look more closely and inquisitively at this portrait.

Why an earring? Is this man a Gypsy? A sailor who has crossed the equator or sailed the seven seas? Why has this photo been made? Is this a tribute to the mans’ lost wife made for her distant family? Is it an advertisement for a far away potential bride – a form of Match.com from the turn of the century?

In Evelyn Cameron’s detailed diaries there are some references to a Mr. Wold who is a blacksmith, and a Mrs. Wold who is sick and expected to die in 1912. The photograph is identified as circa 1912 and seems to portray a home and possessions that the man is proud of. He is letting the viewer know that he is literate by displaying books and holding a newspaper. We can guess that family is important to him due to the presence of the photo albums. There are lace curtains in the windows and a fine tablecloth pinned to an oilcloth cover on the table. The subject is wearing a clean white shirt and tailored jacket. We can also see the right hand in detail, resting on a nicely embroidered blanket, and the left hand grasping a newspaper. These are the hands of a working man, perhaps a blacksmith – perhaps Norman Wold.

The presence of the woman’s hat caringly displayed on the chair covered in a blanket and fine white linens leads me to think the photograph may have been made for her family, but after considering this image so often I’d like to believe that the image served two purposes – a tribute to her and their marriage, and an advertisement for him. I don’t know much about “Norman Wold” but I hope he found someone and was happy. Considering the care he took in displaying his wife’s belongings, he may have been the kind of person who made someone else happy too.

I enjoy wondering about an unknown story contained in an image as much as I like learning the history when we do have the facts and documentation. If you have information regarding this particular photograph, please drop us a line at mhslibrary@mt.gov or give us a call at 406-444-4739.

If you are interested in further reading about Evelyn Cameron and viewing more of her work the MHS Museum Store carries “Photographing Montana 1894-1928 – The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron” by author Donna Lucey. It is an amazing story and the photographs are wonderful.